In the annals of history, new powers have challenged the old on blood-soaked battlefields, in chandelier-decked negotiating rooms and through the brandishing of ahead-of-the-curve technology. And then there’s Muscatine, Iowa, a quiet town on the Mississippi River once home to Mark Twain.
When Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) visited Muscatine in February, he was seizing on his connection to the town forged during a study excursion 27 years earlier to stage a made-for-TV US trip.
While his tone was friendly, the visit might eventually be remembered as a historical marker — Xi is expected to become China’s top leader next year and, sometime during his presidency, his country is forecast to surpass the US as the world’s largest economy.
Behind the ubiquitous red-white-and-blue flags that proudly dot the US landscape, a passionate debate is under way on whether the US has already seen its best days.
The US is saddled with historic debt after a decade of war and the Great Recession, yet leaders are rarely able to agree on much other than that the political system is dysfunctional. Unemployment rates in recent years have been at their worst in three decades and income inequality is by some accounts at modern highs. For a tangible case study in the theory of decline, one need only fly from an aging US airport to one of Asia’s glittering new air hubs.
And yet students from around the world flock to US universities. Few objective observers can argue that the country that invented the airplane, the Internet and The Simpsons is short of innovation and creativity. And that is to say nothing of the staggering gap in military spending between the US and every other country.
Talk of US decline is hardly new — the Vietnam War and Japan’s meteoric economic rise were also both, to some eyes, the beginning of the end of the US moment. And yet the question is shaping up to be a defining national debate in this election year.
Republican US presidential candidate Mitt Romney has relentlessly attacked US President Barack Obama for what he charges is a focus on managing decline instead of asserting the “exceptionalism” of the US.
In the early days of the Obama administration, some aides — while careful not to assert that the US was in decline — said they were studying the lessons of previous global transitions, such as the US eclipse of Britain as the top power a century ago, in hopes of avoiding conflict with China.
That tone has changed.
In January, Obama said that his commitment to working with other nations had restored “a sense of America as the sole, indispensable power.”
In a recent speech, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered a robust defense of an active US role in the world and assured that this year “is not 1912,” when friction between a declining Britain and a rising Germany set the stage for global conflict.
Decline has also become a favorite theme for prominent US academics. In new books, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski both argue that US decline is exaggerated and that the world is far better off with a strong US.
Yet whatever the reality, the very perception of US decline has effects. In a widely read recent essay, Wang Jisi (王緝思), one of China’s top experts on the US, said that Chinese policymakers are convinced of US decline and increasingly see US actions — even longstanding policies such as urging more respect for human rights and selling weapons to Taiwan — as signs of a diminished power trying to keep down a rising China.